Time for Population Separation in Syria

Posted by dianamuir on July 20, 2012

If the international community wants to do something useful in Syria, it could assist an orderly population separation into ethnic nation states.

A massive population separation is already underway; Kurds are fencing off their northeastern corner of the (erstwhile?)  Syrian state,  Alawites are fleeing to their historic coastal province, Armenians are fleeing to Armenia, the Druze have a refuge in Jabal Druze, but Syria’s one and a half million Christians are caught between a rock and a hard place.  The rock is the grim prospects for Christian life under either a Sunni or an Islamist regime.  The hard place is Lebanon.

Armenians are the most interesting case.  Some Armenians have lived in what is now Syria since time immemorial, but most are descended from refugees who fled the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Young Turks in 1915; they are finding refuge in Armenia, a poverty-stricken, resource-poor  country created on a patch of territory between the Caspian and the Black Sea and not on very good terms with the neighbors.  Syrian Armenians are fleeing to Armenia not because it is an attractive place to go, but because, if, as Robert Frost has told us, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there. They have to take you in.”

Armenia recognizes a Right of Return for Armenians because it anticipated situations like the Syria civil war.   The Armenian refugees from Syria will have citizenship, but they will have little else.   Syria in 2012 is a minor ethnic refugee crisis compared to millions of ethnic refugees created by the 1948 partition of India, to name just one example   But, like almost all earlier victims of ethnic cleansing, the Christians fleeing Syria will get no compensation for the homes, farms, and businesses they will be forced to leave behind.

The Armenians are fortunate; they will have some assistance from the ethnic kin state of Armenia, and they will have citizenship.

Lebanon, the closest approximation  to an ethnic kin state that the Arabic Speaking Christians of Syria have, is a much harder place.   A colossal French error of judgment combined with Maronite hubris resulted in the creation of a Lebanese state without a secure Christian majority; now is the moment to correct that error.

The peoples of the former French colony of Syria could be given justice, citizenship, and an opportunity to create the kind of state that enjoys the rule of law and even economic opportunity if the international community seized this moment to support the creation of a series of ethnic nation states, a small Alawite state, a Christian, Arabic speaking Lebanon, Kurdistan, and a Sunni dominated Syria.  Each of these fledgling states would have a demos, a people with sufficient cultural unity to have a chance at producing decent government.

The Twelver Shia who created the Iranian-backed rogue state of Hezbollah in south Lebanon could be exchanged for the Christians who have already been expelled from Iraq.   This would replicate the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne in which over a million Greeks who had already been expelled from the new Turkish state were given a measure of rough justice by the League of Nations when a few hundred thousand Muslims were legally required to leave Greece (and the remnant of the Greek Christians to leave Anatolia).

The idea was that the Greek Christians who had been brutally “cleansed” from their ancient Anatolian homeland could at least have the homes and farms of Muslims.   The poverty and human suffering was appalling, and Greece has not made a particularly good job of self-government.

But, and this is an important but, except in Cyprus (exempted from the population exchange because it was a British naval base) the Greek-Turkish population exchange meant that for the first time in over half a millennium Turks stopped massacring Greek Christians.   Nor has there been a Greco-Turkish war since 1923.

The United Nations could do better this time.   It could compensate the exchangees with a fair market price for their homes, lands and businesses.  (I suggest sending the bill to France on the you-broke-it-you-pay-for-it principle.)

Population separation; because it’s time  to think about a solution capable of producing peace.



Detailed French Mandate map:

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7 Comments to Time for Population Separation in Syria

  • Eliyahu says:

    in fact, the French governed Syria through dividing it into several provinces [including an Alawite one] up to the mid-1930s, when, apparently out of pan-Arabist fantasies which may have been aided by British pressure, France made Syria more of a unitary state, thus denying any self-determination or self-govt to the Alawites. You probably know of Bashar’s grandfather’s letter to the French begging for a separate Alawite political entity. He warned of the hostility to Alawites on the part of the Sunnis. He even praised what the Jews were doing in Israel at the time. Yet Syria was made more of a unitary state, thus inducing the Alawites to put on pan-Arabist garb in order to advance themselves. Hafez Assad and Junior Basher matched or outdid other Arab leaders in their Judeophobia. The pan-Arabism and Judeophobia were political instruments to stay on top of the Sunni Arab tiger. Everybody suffered. And today we see what’s happening. But not only France deserves blame. The British did worse in Sudan, creating a unitary state there despite the deep divisions between the northern Muslims and the tribal Christians and animists of the South [now independent and still at war]. If the UK had granted independence to a federal state or to two states in Sudan, a lot of suffering might have been avoided.

  • Diana –

    I confess to not following the news reports on Syria closely. I understand people fleeing because they want to get out of the way of Assad’s forces and the fighting. But are you saying that there is also inter-ethnic fighting going on as well?


  • dianamuir says:

    Hi Barbara,

    I’m saying that there is very little social trust between ethnic groups in Syria, that Shia and Christian refugees from Iraq are resented, that Christians and Circassians supported Assad, and that the Sunni Arab majority is deeply resentful of having lived for decades under Shia domination.

    So, yes, there is already some inter-ethnic fighting, but for the most part I am anticipating large ethnic flights driven by a fear of Sunni Arab reprisal against populations they have long resented and traditionally dominated. It does not actually take a great deal of ethnically-defined violence to spark very large flows of minority-group refugees. At present many of the refugees are Sunni simply trying to get away form the fighting, and, as always, the earliest refugees were people of some means.

    But it doesn’t take much of a crystal ball to anticipate that when Assad falls, the new Sunni-dominated Syria will be a place that Shia, Christians and Circassians will want to flee or – if already over the border – will feel unable to return to. Kurds and Druze will retreat to the territory that they now dominate. The Alawite appear to be preparing to defend the coastal province in which they are the majority. But the Christians will be vulnerable, and will need citizenship somewhere.


  • Empress Trudy says:

    We simply accept as fact that a diverse multiethnic population could not exist in an Arab country without relying on totalitarian fascism to hold it together or resulting in the obligatory sectarian warfare. And we further accept that even a country ethnically cleansed would still result in anarchic instability were it to be based on more than one subtly different flavor of Islam. In short we’ve concluded that any sort of Treaty of Westphalia is fundamentally impossible for the Arab-Muslim world and we should devolve all these colonial accidents into their constituent tribal clans, which, we think would ameliorate inter clan violence. Two problems with that are 1) no it won’t it never has and 2) it doesn’t result in a viable state able to survive on its own w/o resorting to wars with neighbors anyhow.

  • Tim Upham says:

    I have never heard of an ethnic break up of Syria before. If the Kurds were to establish their own nation, at least some type of independent Kurdistan could be established. Lebanon originally was to have power sharing between the Maronite Christians and Sunnite Muslims, but the Maronites no longer make up 50% of the population like it did after independence from France. I wonder how many Armenians will be taking advantage of Armenia’s right to return? Israel’s did not attract American Jewry in large numbers. Of course, American Jewry never faced the political turmoil that would have drive them out of the United States.

  • Jacob Silver says:

    Transfers, usually beset with violence, do eventually produce peace. You can see this in the removal of Bohemia from Czechoslovakia, and the division of the Check Republic and Slovakia. The reconfiguration of Poland is another example. However, the population transfer which occasioned the emergence of Israel (850,000 Jews, mostly from Iraq and Egypt, and 750,000 Arabs [now referring to themselves as Palestinians] from Israel.) And the Jews who left Iraq had to leave businesses, factories, homes, and household goods behind, so the Christians of Syria will not be the first to be forceably deprived of their wealth and possessions.

  • AEB says:

    You can’t possibly be advocating the expulsion of Shias from Lebanon in exchange of Syrian and Iraqi Christians?! Lebanese Shiites have more in common with Lebanese and Syrian Sunnis than they do with Iraqi Shiites. The notion that religion plays a larger role than geography and local culture in defining the Arab identity is ludicrous.

    The problem here is that you don’t realize it is Arabs who want to unite – they foiled the French plan to divide and rule Syria. After the 1925 revolt, France held elections, expecting the Aleppo-Damascus rivalry to keep the country divided. Shockingly to France, they voted for union, and easily annexed the Druze and Alawi portions afterwards. Of course as a goodbye present, the French severed Lebanon from Syria for good, against the will of its non-Christians, and gave Iskandrun to Turkey, where Alawis and Armenians were expelled to Syria.

    Another thing you miss is the role colonialism has played in this conflict. For instance, Britain consolidated an autonomous Sunni monarchy in Iraq and kept its own elite force of Assyrian troops to police the mandate. In Syria and Lebanon France favoured the Christians politically, while militarily it conscripted Alawis and sent them to put down the revolt in Damascus. Add to that a couple of CIA coups in democratic Syria and a Maronite dictatorship over Lebanon and you just perfected the mess: a fascist Alawi military coup and a fratricidal Lebanese civil war.

    The situation under the Ottomans was indeed awful, but had the French and British let the Arabs decide their own fate in the Levant and Mesopotamia instead of colonizing them for three decades, lots of these messes would not have occurred. If the Hashemites were allowed to serve as constitutional monarchs acknowledged by the newly liberated Syrian parliament, you never know what would have happened. Iran was a developing democracy by 1953 after all, the same could have happened in a liberal Syria with strong French influence.

    What we need is to fix Lebanon into a real, nonsectarian democracy, and ditto for Syria, then merge the two. This will likely take a few more decades while the Islamist storm blows over. Right now, I fear for Alawis and Melkites from reprisals, so a Alawi state might be justified – but I see no reason for separating the Kurds and Druze from Syria.

    Syria is only 60% Sunni Arab – of which a significant proportion is bourgeois, liberal, and urbanized. If democracy and liberalism in the Arab world stand a chance, it’s in Lebanon and Syria.

    In Response to Eliyahu – the French’s sin in Syria was to favour Christians, separate Lebanon, include non-Christian areas in Lebanon, and conscript Alawis into the army to put down the Syrian revolt. There are famous Kurdish (Ibrahim Hanano), Druze (Sultan Pasha al Atrash), Alawi (Sheikh Saleh al Ali), and Sunni (Yousef al Azma) who led revolts against the French in the 1920’s. Syrians were unanimous in rejecting the French much like Iraqis and Sudanese were unanimous in rejecting the British.

    I agree with you though about Sudan. The British expanded Sudan’s borders beyond those of the caliphate’s. They subjugated countless local tribes and merged them into a superstate and now look what happened. The same thing happened to Kurds – Arabs declared the Arab Kingdom of Syria, while the Kurds declared the Kingdom of Kurdistan. The French invaded Syria, and the British invaded Kurdistan. The British unjustly gave Kurdistan (Suleimaniya, Dohuk and Arbil) to Iraq, leaving them at the mercy of Saddam Hussein.